Shoe Dog by Phil Knight by Phil Knight - Read Online

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Editor’s Note

“A new business book classic…”Just as Nike’s swoosh symbol is one of the most recognizable symbols of excellence around the world, this memoir from the shoe company’s founder, Phil Knight, has quickly become one of the most-lauded, must-read business books of all time.
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Summary

In this instant and tenacious New York Times bestseller, Nike founder and board chairman Phil Knight “offers a rare and revealing look at the notoriously media-shy man behind the swoosh” (Booklist, starred review), illuminating his company’s early days as an intrepid start-up and its evolution into one of the world’s most iconic, game-changing, and profitable brands.

Bill Gates named Shoe Dog one of his five favorite books of 2016 and called it “an amazing tale, a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like. It’s a messy, perilous, and chaotic journey, riddled with mistakes, endless struggles, and sacrifice. Phil Knight opens up in ways few CEOs are willing to do.”

Fresh out of business school, Phil Knight borrowed fifty dollars from his father and launched a company with one simple mission: import high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan. Selling the shoes from the trunk of his car in 1963, Knight grossed eight thousand dollars that first year. Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion. In this age of start-ups, Knight’s Nike is the gold standard, and its swoosh is one of the few icons instantly recognized in every corner of the world.

But Knight, the man behind the swoosh, has always been a mystery. In Shoe Dog, he tells his story at last. At twenty-four, Knight decides that rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, new, dynamic, different. He details the many risks he encountered, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors and hostile bankers—as well as his many thrilling triumphs. Above all, he recalls the relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crazed brothers.

Together, harnessing the electrifying power of a bold vision and a shared belief in the transformative power of sports, they created a brand—and a culture—that changed everything.
Published: Scribner on
ISBN: 1501135937
List price: $14.99
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PART ONE

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

1962

When I broached the subject with my father, when I worked up the nerve to speak to him about my Crazy Idea, I made sure it was in the early evening. That was always the best time with Dad. He was relaxed then, well fed, stretched out in his vinyl recliner in the TV nook. I can still tilt back my head and close my eyes and hear the sound of the audience laughing, the tinny theme songs of his favorite shows, Wagon Train and Rawhide.

His all-time favorite was Red Buttons. Every episode began with Red singing: Ho ho, hee hee . . . strange things are happening.

I set a straight-backed chair beside him and gave a wan smile and waited for the next commercial. I’d rehearsed my spiel, in my head, over and over, especially the opening. Sooo, Dad, you remember that Crazy Idea I had at Stanford . . . ?

It was one of my final classes, a seminar on entrepreneurship. I’d written a research paper about shoes, and the paper had evolved from a run-of-the-mill assignment to an all-out obsession. Being a runner, I knew something about running shoes. Being a business buff, I knew that Japanese cameras had made deep cuts into the camera market, which had once been dominated by Germans. Thus, I argued in my paper that Japanese running shoes might do the same thing. The idea interested me, then inspired me, then captivated me. It seemed so obvious, so simple, so potentially huge.

I’d spent weeks and weeks on that paper. I’d moved into the library, devoured everything I could find about importing and exporting, about starting a company. Finally, as required, I’d given a formal presentation of the paper to my classmates, who reacted with formal boredom. Not one asked a single question. They greeted my passion and intensity with labored sighs and vacant stares.

The professor thought my Crazy Idea had merit: He gave me an A. But that was that. At least, that was supposed to be that. I’d never really stopped thinking about that paper. Through the rest of my time at Stanford, through every morning run and right up to that moment in the TV nook, I’d pondered going to Japan, finding a shoe company, pitching them my Crazy Idea, in the hopes that they’d have a more enthusiastic reaction than my classmates, that they’d want to partner with a shy, pale, rail-thin kid from sleepy Oregon.

I’d also toyed with the notion of making an exotic detour on my way to and from Japan. How can I leave my mark on the world, I thought, unless I get out there first and see it? Before running a big race, you always want to walk the track. A backpacking trip around the globe might be just the thing, I reasoned. No one talked about bucket lists in those days, but I suppose that’s close to what I had in mind. Before I died, became too old or consumed with everyday minutiae, I wanted to visit the planet’s most beautiful and wondrous places.

And its most sacred. Of course I wanted to taste other foods, hear other languages, dive into other cultures, but what I really craved was connection with a capital C. I wanted to experience what the Chinese call Tao, the Greeks call Logos, the Hindus call Jñāna, the Buddhists call Dharma. What the Christians call Spirit. Before setting out on my own personal life voyage, I thought, let me first understand the greater voyage of humankind. Let me explore the grandest temples and churches and shrines, the holiest rivers and mountaintops. Let me feel the presence of . . . God?

Yes, I told myself, yes. For want of a better word, God.

But first, I’d need my father’s approval.

More, I’d need his cash.

I’d already mentioned making a big trip, the previous year, and my father seemed open to it. But surely he’d forgotten. And surely I was pushing it, adding to the original proposal this Crazy Idea, this outrageous side trip—to Japan? To launch a company? Talk about boondoggles.

Surely he’d see this as a bridge too far.

And a bridge too darned expensive. I had some savings from the Army, and from various part-time jobs over the last several summers. On top of which, I planned to sell my car, a cherry black 1960 MG with racing tires and a twin cam. (The same car Elvis drove in Blue Hawaii.) All of which amounted to fifteen hundred dollars, leaving me a grand short, I now told my father. He nodded, uh-huh, mm-hmm, and flicked his eyes from the TV to me, and back again, while I laid it all out.

Remember how we talked, Dad? How I said I want to see the World?

The Himalayas? The pyramids?

The Dead Sea, Dad? The Dead Sea?

Well, haha, I’m also thinking of stopping off in Japan, Dad. Remember my Crazy Idea? Japanese running shoes? Right? It could be huge, Dad. Huge.

I was laying it on thick, putting on the hard sell, extra hard, because I always hated selling, and because this particular sell had zero chance. My father had just forked out hundreds of dollars to the University of Oregon, thousands more to Stanford. He was the publisher of the Oregon Journal, a solid job that paid for all the basic comforts, including our spacious white house on Claybourne Street, in Portland’s quietest suburb, Eastmoreland. But the man wasn’t made of money.

Also, this was 1962. The earth was bigger then. Though humans were beginning to orbit the planet in capsules, 90 percent of Americans still had never been on an airplane. The average man or woman had never ventured farther than one hundred miles from his or her own front door, so the mere mention of global travel by airplane would unnerve any father, and especially mine, whose predecessor at the paper had died in an air crash.

Setting aside money, setting aside safety concerns, the whole thing was just so impractical. I was aware that twenty-six of twenty-­seven new companies failed, and my father was aware, too, and the idea of taking on such a colossal risk went against everything he stood for. In many ways my father was a conventional Episcopalian, a believer in Jesus Christ. But he also worshipped another secret deity—respectability. Colonial house, beautiful wife, obedient kids, my father enjoyed having these things, but what he really cherished was his friends and neighbors knowing he had them. He liked being admired. He liked doing a vigorous backstroke each day in the mainstream. Going around the world on a lark, therefore, would simply make no sense to him. It wasn’t done. Certainly not by the respectable sons of respectable men. It was something other people’s kids did. Something beatniks and hipsters did.

Possibly, the main reason for my father’s respectability fixation was a fear of his inner chaos. I felt this, viscerally, because every now and then that chaos would burst forth. Without warning, late at night, the phone in the front hall would jingle, and when I answered there would be that same gravelly voice on the line. Come getcher old man.

I’d pull on my raincoat—it always seemed, on those nights, that a misting rain was falling—and drive downtown to my father’s club. As clearly as I remember my own bedroom, I remember that club. A century old, with floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases and wing-backed chairs, it looked like the drawing room of an English country house. In other words, eminently respectable.

I’d always find my father at the same table, in the same chair. I’d always help him gently to his feet. You okay, Dad? Course I’m okay. I’d always guide him outside to the car, and the whole way home we’d pretend nothing was wrong. He’d sit perfectly erect, almost regal, and we’d talk sports, because talking sports was how I distracted myself, soothed myself, in times of stress.

My father liked sports, too. Sports were always respectable.

For these and a dozen other reasons I expected my father to greet my pitch in the TV nook with a furrowed brow and a quick put-down. Haha, Crazy Idea. Fat chance, Buck. (My given name was Philip, but my father always called me Buck. In fact he’d been calling me Buck since before I was born. My mother told me he’d been in the habit of patting her stomach and asking, How’s little Buck today?) As I stopped talking, however, as I stopped pitching, my father rocked forward in his vinyl recliner and shot me a funny look. He said that he always regretted not traveling more when he was young. He said a trip might be just the finishing touch to my education. He said a lot of things, all of them focused more on the trip than the Crazy Idea, but I wasn’t about to correct him. I wasn’t about to complain, because in sum he was giving his blessing. And his cash.

Okay, he said. Okay, Buck. Okay.

I thanked my father and fled the nook before he had a chance to change his mind. Only later did I realize with a spasm of guilt that my father’s lack of travel was an ulterior reason, perhaps the main reason, that I wanted to go. This trip, this Crazy Idea, would be one sure way of becoming someone other than him. Someone less respectable.

Or maybe not less respectable. Maybe just less obsessed with respectability.

The rest of the family wasn’t quite so supportive. When my grandmother got wind of my itinerary, one item in particular appalled her. Japan! she cried. "Why, Buck, it was only a few years ago the Japs were out to kill us! Don’t you remember? Pearl Harbor! The Japs tried to conquer the world! Some of them still don’t know they lost! They’re in hiding! They might take you prisoner, Buck. Gouge out your eyeballs. They’re known for that—your eyeballs."

I loved my mother’s mother, whom we all called Mom Hatfield. And I understood her fear. Japan was about as far as you could get from Roseburg, Oregon, the farm town where she was born and where she’d lived all her life. I’d spent many summers down there with her and Pop Hatfield. Almost every night we’d sat out on the porch, listening to the croaking bullfrogs compete with the console radio, which in the early 1940s was always tuned to news of the war.

Which was always bad.

The Japanese, we were told repeatedly, hadn’t lost a war in twenty-­six hundred years, and it sure didn’t seem they were going to lose this one, either. In battle after battle, we suffered defeat after defeat. Finally, in 1942, Mutual Broadcasting’s Gabriel Heatter opened his nightly radio report with a shrill cry. "Good evening, everyone—there’s good news tonight! The Americans had won a decisive battle at last. Critics skewered Heatter for his shameless cheerleading, for abandoning all pretense of journalistic objectivity, but the public hatred of Japan was so intense, most people hailed Heatter as a folk hero. Thereafter he opened all broadcasts the same way. Good news tonight!"

It’s one of my earliest memories. Mom and Pop Hatfield beside me on that porch, Pop peeling a Gravenstein apple with his pocketknife, handing me a slice, then eating a slice, then handing me a slice, and so on, until his apple-paring pace slowed dramatically. Heatter was coming on. Sssh! Hush up! I can still see us all chewing apples and gazing at the night sky, so Japan-obsessed that we half expected to see Japanese Zeros crisscrossing the Dog Star. No wonder my first time on an airplane, right around five years old, I asked: Dad, are the Japs going to shoot us down?

Though Mom Hatfield got the hair on my neck standing up, I told her not to worry, I’d be fine. I’d even bring her back a kimono.

My twin sisters, Jeanne and Joanne, four years younger than me, didn’t seem to care one way or another where I went or what I did.

And my mother, as I recall, said nothing. She rarely did. But there was something different about her silence this time. It equaled consent. Even pride.

I SPENT WEEKS reading, planning, preparing for my trip. I went for long runs, musing on every detail while racing the wild geese as they flew overhead. Their tight V formations—I’d read somewhere that the geese in the rear of the formation, cruising in the backdraft, only have to work 80 percent as hard as the leaders. Every runner understands this. Front runners always work the hardest, and risk the most.

Long before approaching my father, I’d decided it would be good to have a companion on my trip, and that companion should be my Stanford classmate Carter. Though he’d been a hoops star at William Jewell College, Carter wasn’t your typical jock. He wore thick glasses and read books. Good books. He was easy to talk to, and easy not to talk to—equally important qualities in a friend. Essential in a travel companion.

But Carter laughed in my face. When I laid out the list of places I wanted to see—Hawaii, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rangoon, Calcutta, Bombay, Saigon, Kathmandu, Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jordan, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Rome, Paris, Vienna, West Berlin, East Berlin, Munich, London—he rocked back on his heels and guffawed. Mortified, I looked down and began to make apologies. Then Carter, still laughing, said: What a swell idea, Buck!

I looked up. He wasn’t laughing at me. He was laughing with joy, with glee. He was impressed. It took balls to put together an itinerary like that, he said. Balls. He wanted in.

Days later he got the okay from his parents, plus a loan from his father. Carter never did mess around. See an open shot, take it—that was Carter. I told myself there was much I could learn from a guy like that as we circled the earth.

We each packed one suitcase and one backpack. Only the bare necessities, we promised each other. A few pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts. Running shoes, desert boots, sunglasses, plus one pair of suntans—the 1960s word for khakis.

I also packed one good suit. A green Brooks Brothers two-button. Just in case my Crazy Idea came to fruition.

SEPTEMBER 7, 1962. Carter and I piled into his battered old Chevy and drove at warp speed down I-5, through the Willamette Valley, out the wooded bottom of Oregon, which felt like plunging through the roots of a tree. We sped into the piney tip of California, up and over tall green mountain passes, then down, down, until long after midnight we swept into fog-cloaked San Francisco. For several days we stayed with some friends, sleeping on their floor, and then we swung by Stanford and fetched a few of Carter’s things out of storage. Finally we stopped at a liquor store and bought two discounted tickets on Standard Airlines to Honolulu. One-way, eighty bucks.

It felt like only minutes later that Carter and I were stepping onto the sandy tarmac of Oahu Airport. We wheeled and looked at the sky and thought: That is not the sky back home.

A line of beautiful girls came toward us. Soft-eyed, olive-skinned, barefoot, they had double-jointed hips, with which they twitched and swished their grass skirts in our faces. Carter and I looked at each other and slowly grinned.

We took a cab to Waikiki Beach and checked into a motel directly across the street from the sea. In one motion we dropped our bags and pulled on our swim trunks. Race you to the water!

As my feet hit the sand I whooped and laughed and kicked off my sneakers, then sprinted directly into the waves. I didn’t stop until I was up to my neck in the foam. I dove to the bottom, all the way to the bottom, and then came up gasping, laughing, and rolled onto my back. At last I stumbled onto the shore and plopped onto the sand, smiling at the birds and the clouds. I must have looked like an escaped mental patient. Carter, sitting beside me now, wore the same daffy expression.

We should stay here, I said. Why be in a hurry to leave?

What about The Plan? Carter said. Going around the world?

Plans change.

Carter grinned. Swell idea, Buck.

So we got jobs. Selling encyclopedias door to door. Not glamorous, to be sure, but heck. We didn’t start work until 7:00 p.m., which gave us plenty of time for surfing. Suddenly nothing was more important than learning to surf. After only a few tries I was able to stay upright on a board, and after a few weeks I was good. Really good.

Gainfully employed, we ditched our motel room and signed a lease on an apartment, a furnished studio with two beds, one real, one fake—a sort of ironing board that folded out from the wall. Carter, being longer and heavier, got the real bed, and I got the ironing board. I didn’t care. After a day of surfing and selling encyclopedias, followed by a late night at the local bars, I could have slept in a luau fire pit. The rent was one hundred bucks a month, which we split down the middle.

Life was sweet. Life was heaven. Except for one small thing. I couldn’t sell encyclopedias.

I couldn’t sell encyclopedias to save my life. The older I got, it seemed, the shier I got, and the sight of my extreme discomfort often made strangers uncomfortable. Thus, selling anything would have been challenging, but selling encyclopedias, which were about as popular in Hawaii as mosquitoes and mainlanders, was an ordeal. No matter how deftly or forcefully I managed to deliver the key phrases drilled into us during our brief training session (Boys, tell the folks you ain’t selling encyclopedias—you’re selling a Vast Compendium of Human Knowledge . . . the Answers to Life’s Questions!), I ­always got the same response.

Beat it, kid.

If my shyness made me bad at selling encyclopedias, my nature made me despise it. I wasn’t built for heavy doses of rejection. I’d known this about myself since high school, freshman year, when I got cut from the baseball team. A small setback, in the grand scheme, but it knocked me sideways. It was my first real awareness that not everyone in this world will like us, or accept us, that we’re often cast aside at the very moment we most need to be included.

I will never forget that day. Dragging my bat along the sidewalk, I staggered home and holed up in my room, where I grieved, and moped, for about two weeks, until my mother appeared on the edge of my bed and said, Enough.

She urged me to try something else. Like what? I groaned into my pillow. How about track? she said. Track? I said. You can run fast, Buck. I can? I said, sitting up.

So I went out for track. And I found that I could run. And no one could take that away.

Now I gave up selling encyclopedias, and all the old familiar rejection that went with it, and I turned to the want ads. In no time I spotted a small ad inside a thick black border. Wanted: Securities Salesmen. I certainly figured to have better luck selling securities. After all, I had an MBA. And before leaving home I’d had a pretty successful interview with Dean Witter.

I did some research and found that this job had two things going for it. First, it was with Investors Overseas Services, which was headed by Bernard Cornfeld, one of the most famous businessmen of the 1960s. Second, it was located in the top floor of a beautiful beachside tower. Twenty-foot windows overlooking that turquoise sea. Both of these things appealed to me, and made me press hard in the interview. Somehow, after weeks of being unable to talk anyone into buying an encyclopedia, I talked Team Cornfeld into taking a flyer on me.

CORNFELD’S EXTRAORDINARY SUCCESS, plus that breathtaking view, made it possible most days to forget that the firm was nothing more than a boiler room. Cornfeld was notorious for asking his employees if they sincerely wanted to be rich, and every day a dozen wolfish young men demonstrated that they did, they sincerely did. With ferocity, with abandon, they crashed the phones, cold-calling prospects, scrambling desperately to arrange face-to-face meetings.

I wasn’t a smooth talker. I wasn’t any kind of talker. Still, I knew numbers, and I knew the product: Dreyfus Funds. More, I knew how to speak the truth. People seemed to like that. I was quickly able to schedule a few meetings, and to close a few sales. Inside a week I’d earned enough in commissions to pay my half of the rent for the next six months, with plenty left over for surfboard wax.

Most of my discretionary income went to the dive bars along the water. Tourists tended to hang out in the luxe resorts, the ones with names like incantations—the Moana, the Halekulani—but Carter and I preferred the dives. We liked to sit with our fellow beachniks and surf bums, seekers and vagabonds, feeling smug about the one thing we had in our favor. Geography. Those poor suckers back home, we’d say. Those poor saps sleepwalking through their humdrum lives, bundled against the cold and rain. Why can’t they be more like us? Why can’t they seize the day?

Our sense of carpe diem was heightened by the fact that the world was coming to an end. A nuclear standoff with the Soviets had been building for weeks. The Soviets had three dozen missiles in Cuba, the United States wanted them out, and both sides had made their final offer. Negotiations were over and World War III was set to begin any minute. According to the newspapers, missiles would fall from the sky later today. Tomorrow at the latest. The world was Pompeii, and the volcano was already spitting ash. Ah well, everyone in the dive bars agreed, when humanity ends, this will be as good a place as any to watch the rising mushroom clouds. Aloha, civilization.

And then, surprise, the world was spared. The crisis passed. The sky seemed to sigh with relief as the air turned suddenly crisper, calmer. A perfect Hawaiian autumn followed. Days of contentment and something close to bliss.

Followed by a sharp restlessness. One night I set my beer on the bar and turned to Carter. I think maybe the time has come to leave Shangri-La, I said.

I didn’t make a hard pitch. I didn’t think I had to. It was clearly time to get back to The Plan. But Carter frowned and stroked his chin. Gee, Buck, I don’t know.

He’d met a girl. A beautiful Hawaiian teenager with long brown legs and jet-black eyes, the kind of girl who’d greeted our airplane, the kind I dreamed of having and never would. He wanted to stick around, and how could I argue?

I told him I understood. But I was cast low. I left the bar and went for a long walk on the beach. Game over, I told myself.

The last thing I wanted was to pack up and return to Oregon. But I couldn’t see traveling around the world alone, either. Go home, a faint inner voice told me. Get a normal job. Be a normal person.

Then I heard another faint voice, equally emphatic. No, don’t go home. Keep going. Don’t stop.

The next day I gave my two weeks’ notice at the boiler room. Too bad, Buck, one of the bosses said, you had a real future as a salesman. God forbid, I muttered.

That afternoon, at a travel agency down the block, I purchased an open plane ticket, good for one year on any airline going anywhere. A sort of Eurail Pass in the sky. On Thanksgiving Day, 1962, I hoisted my backpack and shook Carter’s hand. Buck, he said, don’t take any wooden nickels.

THE CAPTAIN ADDRESSED the passengers in rapid-fire Japanese, and I started to sweat. I looked out the window at the blazing red circle on the wing. Mom Hatfield was right, I thought. We were just at war with these people. Corregidor, the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking—and now I was going there on some sort of business venture?

Crazy Idea? Maybe I was, in fact, crazy.

If so, it was too late to seek professional help. The plane was screeching down the runway, roaring above Hawaii’s cornstarch beaches. I looked down at the massive volcanoes growing smaller and smaller. No turning back.

Since it was Thanksgiving, the in-flight meal was turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Since we were bound for Japan, there was also raw tuna, miso soup, and hot sake. I ate it all, while reading the paperbacks I’d stuffed into my backpack. The Catcher in the Rye and Naked Lunch. I identified with Holden Caulfield, the teenage introvert seeking his place in the world, but Burroughs went right over my head. The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.

Too rich for my blood. I passed out. When I woke we were in a steep, rapid descent. Below us lay a startlingly bright Tokyo. The Ginza in particular was like a Christmas tree.

Driving to my hotel, however, I saw only darkness. Vast sections of the city were total liquid black. War, the cabdriver said. Many building still bomb.

American B-29s. Superfortresses. Over a span of several nights in the summer of 1944, waves of them dropped 750,000 pounds of bombs, most filled with gasoline and flammable jelly. One of the world’s oldest cities, Tokyo was made largely of wood, so the bombs set off a hurricane of fire. Some three hundred thousand people were burned alive, instantly, four times the number who died in Hiroshima. More than a million were gruesomely injured. And nearly 80 percent of the buildings were vaporized. For long, solemn stretches the cabdriver and I said nothing. There was nothing to say.

Finally the driver stopped at the address written in my notebook. A dingy hostel. Beyond dingy. I’d made the reservation through American Express, sight unseen, a mistake, I now realized. I crossed the pitted sidewalk and entered a building that seemed about to implode.

An old Japanese woman behind the front desk bowed to me. I realized she wasn’t bowing, she was bent by age, like a tree that’s weathered many storms. Slowly she led me to my room, which was more a box. Tatami mat, lopsided table, nothing else. I didn’t care. I barely noticed that the tatami mat was wafer thin. I bowed to the bent old woman, bidding her good night. Oyasumi nasai. I curled up on the mat and passed out.

HOURS LATER I woke in a room flooded with light. I crawled to the window. Apparently I was in some kind of industrial district on the city’s fringe. Filled with docks and factories, this district must have been a primary target of the B-29s. Everywhere I looked was desolation. Buildings cracked and broken. Block after block simply leveled. Gone.

Luckily my father knew people in Tokyo, including a group of American guys working at United Press International. I took a cab there and the guys greeted me like family. They gave me coffee and a breakfast ring and when I told them where I’d spent the night they laughed. They booked me into a clean, decent hotel. Then they wrote down the names of several good places to eat.

What in God’s name are you doing in Tokyo? I explained that I was going around the world. Then I mentioned my Crazy Idea. Huh, they said, giving a little eye roll. They mentioned two ex-GIs who ran a monthly magazine called Importer. "Talk to the fellas at Importer, they said, before you do anything rash."

I promised I would. But first I wanted to see the city.

Guidebook and Minolta box camera in hand, I sought out the few landmarks that had survived the war, the oldest temples and shrines. I spent hours sitting on benches in walled gardens, reading about Japan’s dominant religions, Buddhism and Shinto. I marveled at the concept of kensho, or satori—enlightenment that comes in a flash, a blinding pop. Sort of like the bulb on my Minolta. I liked that. I wanted that.

But first I’d need to change my whole approach. I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.

In every religion, it seemed, self is the obstacle, the enemy. And yet Zen declares plainly that the self doesn’t exist. Self is a mirage, a fever dream, and our stubborn belief in its reality not only wastes life, but shortens it. Self is the bald-faced lie we tell ourselves daily, and happiness requires seeing through the lie, debunking it. To study the self, said the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen, is to forget the self. Inner voice, outer voices, it’s all the same. No dividing lines.

Especially in competition. Victory, Zen says, comes when we forget the self and the opponent, who are but two halves of one whole. In Zen and the Art of Archery, it’s all laid out with crystal clarity. Perfection in the art of swordsmanship is reached . . . when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one’s own sword and how to wield it. . . . All is emptiness: your own self, the flashing sword, and the arms that wield it. Even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.

My head swimming, I decided to take a break, to visit a very un-Zen landmark, in fact the most anti-Zen place in Japan, an enclave where men focused on self and nothing but self—the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Housed in a marble Romanesque building with great big Greek columns, the Tosho looked from across the street like a stodgy bank in a quiet town in Kansas. Inside, however, all was bedlam. Hundreds of men waving their arms, pulling their hair, screaming. A more depraved version of Cornfeld’s boiler room.

I couldn’t look away. I watched and watched, asking myself, Is this what it’s all about? Really? I appreciated money as much as the next guy. But I wanted my life to be about so much more.

After the Tosho I needed peace. I went deep into the silent heart of the city, to the garden of the nineteenth-century emperor Meiji and his empress, a space thought to possess immense spiritual power. I sat, contemplative, reverent, beneath swaying ginkgo trees, beside a beautiful torii gate. I read in my guidebook that a torii gate is usually a portal to sacred places, and so I basked in the sacredness, the serenity, trying to soak it all in.

The next morning I laced up my running shoes and jogged to Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market. It was the Tosho all over again, with shrimp instead of stocks. I watched ancient fishermen spread their catches onto wooden carts and haggle with leather-­faced merchants. That night I took a bus up to the lakes region, in the northern Hakone Mountains, an area that inspired many of the great Zen poets. You cannot travel the path until you have become the path yourself, said the Buddha, and I stood in awe before a path that twisted from the glassy lakes to cloud-ringed Mount Fuji, a perfect snow-clad triangle that looked to me exactly like Mount Hood back home. The Japanese believe climbing Fuji is a mystical experience, a ritual act of celebration, and I was overcome with a desire to climb it, right then. I wanted to ascend into the clouds. I decided to wait, however. I would return when I had something to celebrate.

I WENT BACK to Tokyo and presented myself at Importer. The two ex-GIs in charge, thick-necked, brawny, very busy, looked as if they might chew me out for intruding and wasting their time. But within minutes their gruff exterior dissolved and they were warm, friendly, pleased to meet someone from back home. We talked mostly about sports. Can you believe the Yankees won it all again? How about that Willie Mays? None better. Yessir, none better.

Then they told me their story.

They were the first Americans I ever met who loved Japan. Stationed there during the Occupation, they fell under the spell of the culture, the food, the women, and when their hitch was up they simply couldn’t bring themselves to leave. So they’d launched an import magazine, when no one anywhere was interested in importing anything Japanese, and somehow they’d managed to keep it afloat for seventeen years.

I told them my Crazy Idea and they listened with some interest. They made a pot of coffee and invited me to sit down. Was there a particular line of Japanese shoes I’d considered importing? they asked.

I told them I liked Tiger, a nifty brand manufactured by Onitsuka Co., down in Kobe, the largest city in southern Japan.

Yes, yes, we’ve seen it, they said.

I told them I was thinking of heading down there, meeting the Onitsuka people face to face.

In that case, the ex-GIs said, you’d better learn a few things about doing business with the Japanese.

The key, they said, "is don’t be pushy. Don’t come on like the typical asshole American, the typical gaijin—rude, loud, aggressive, not taking no for an answer. The Japanese do not react well to the hard sell. Negotiations here tend to be soft, sinewy. Look how long it took the Americans and Russians to coax Hirohito into surrendering. And even when he did surrender, when his country was reduced to a heap of ashes, what did he tell his people? ‘The war situation hasn’t developed to Japan’s advantage.’ It’s a culture of indirection. No one ever turns you down flat. No one ever says, straight out, no. But they don’t say yes, either. They speak in circles, sentences with no clear subject or object. Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be cocky. You might leave a man’s office thinking you’ve blown it, when in fact he’s ready to do a deal. You might leave thinking you’ve closed a deal, when in fact you’ve just been rejected. You never know."

I frowned. Under the best of circumstances I was not a great negotiator. Now I was going to have to negotiate in some kind of funhouse with trick mirrors? Where normal rules didn’t apply?

After an hour of this baffling tutorial, I shook hands with the ex-GIs and said my good-byes. Feeling suddenly that I couldn’t wait, that I needed to strike quickly, while their words were fresh in my mind, I raced back to my hotel, threw everything into my little suitcase and backpack, and phoned Onitsuka to make an appointment.

Later that afternoon I boarded a train south.

JAPAN WAS RENOWNED for its impeccable order and extreme cleanliness. Japanese literature, philosophy, clothing, domestic life, all were marvelously pure and spare. Minimalist. Expect nothing, seek nothing, grasp nothing—the immortal Japanese poets wrote lines that seemed polished and polished until they gleamed like the blade of a samurai’s sword, or the stones of a mountain brook. Spotless.

So why, I wondered, is this train to Kobe so filthy?

The floors were strewn with newspapers and cigarette butts. The seats were covered with orange rinds and discarded newspapers. Worse, every car was packed. There was barely room to stand.

I found a strap by a window and hung there for seven hours as the train rocked and inched past remote villages, past farms no bigger than the average Portland backyard. The trip was long, but neither my legs nor my patience gave out. I was too busy going over and over my tutorial with the ex-GIs.

When I arrived I took a small room in a cheap ryokan. My appointment at Onitsuka was early the next morning, so I lay down immediately on the tatami mat. But I